Social Cohesion in Industrial and Postindustrial Societies: Implications for the Human Capabilities Approach and Human Development

Aruqaj, Bujar (2016). 'Social Cohesion in Industrial and Postindustrial Societies: Implications for the Human Capabilities Approach and Human Development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

While there is widespread consensus amongst scholars on the theory of “human capabilities”, the same cannot be said about the notion of “social cohesion” which is often seen as a “multicomponent” concept and used in a variety of contexts, whose exact content varies from one author to another. The origins of social cohesion can be traced back to Émile Durkheim’s concepts of “social solidarity” and “social integration” (1893) which is primarily used in the academic discourse of Sociology and Social Psychology. On the other hand, the definition used by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and more widely in the policy discourse can be understood in the context of John Rawls’ (1971) notion of a “well-ordered society”.
After an extensive review of the vast theories on social cohesion, it is evident that no matter in what setting the concept is used, there is a widespread consensus that social cohesion is a “societal” attribute, which means that the unit of analysis should be the nation state and the level of cohesiveness of a society as a whole. While some authors put the main emphasis on cross-group relationships, entailing norms on ‘trust’ and ‘sense of belonging’ (Chan et al., 2006), others emphasize inclusion and focus on socio-economic inequalities (Muntanter and Lynch 1999). Other defining characteristics that make up a ‘cohesive’ society are common values and a civic culture, social order and social control, social solidarity and social networks, as well as territorial belonging and identity (Bécares, Stafford et al., 2011). Having this in mind, it is possile to suggest that the secondary-level components that can constitute a comprehensive concept of social cohesion can be divided into three main domains, namely: a) trust (intra and inter group); b) inequalities (involving vertical and horizontal socio-economic inequalities); c) identities (civic/national identity relative to group identity).
One of the main gaps in the literature and theory of human development that this project seeks to address is to what extend social factors and particularly social cohesion (defined here to exclude actions of the government and private sector) have an impact on the opportunities and freedoms of individuals (defined as capabilities). While the state and market have been subject to much investigation in relation to the human development and capability approaches, the role of collective activities outside the state and the market has been given a much less central place. For instance, of course it would be logical to claim that the capability of ‘employment’ is heavily influenced by state actions and market condition alike. However, it is just as logical to claim that it is also heavily influenced by social norms such as attitudes towards child labor and female employment. In this way, I seek to understand how the social norms of ‘trust’ and ‘sense of belonging’ can be better integrated into the human capabilities approach (in addition to inequalities). Social cohesion is a macro-concept aimed at assessing the quality of the social aspects of life for society as a whole but its implication for individuals is evident and represents the focal point for this analysis.
The cohesiveness of society does not only reflect on levels of income, but also on other individual capabilities. For instance, trust has a significant and large impact on performance of social institutions (La Porta et al. 1997), and significantly increases the investment in both physical and human capital (Dearmon and Grier 2009). In a more recent study of the former head of the “Human Development and Capabilities Association”, Frances Steward (2013) assesses the critical role that social institutions (including social norms) play in human development. Moreover, “bodily well-being” is influenced by norms of healthy behavior and attitudes to violence; “employment and political freedoms” are much influenced by organizations and movements such as political parties, workers associations’ (unions) and social movements where actors are almost always related to each other based on norms of trust and sense of belonging. Despite this evidence, so far there has been no attempt to systematically study the casual relationship between social cohesion and human development and specifically assess if certain kinds of cohesion have an impact on specific capabilities. This is precisely one of the tasks of this project. In investigating this I hypothesize that social cohesion has an instrumental and intrinsic importance to quality-of-life and wellbeing in a society.
Research Questions and Hypothesis Formulation
Having established the basis for further theorizing, empirical research, and measurement into social cohesion and human development, we can now turn to the research question and hypothesis formulation. In exploring the causal relationship of interest, it is imperative to initially address the following overarching question:
        I.            What impact does social cohesion have on individual capabilities and therefore on the aggregate level of human development (quality-of-life) in a society?
To further specificity this question and give it a comparative dimension, I pose two additional questions which are closely interlinked with the first one:
     II.            Can we infer through comparison that countries which are more socially cohesive have a higher output of human development, if we compare countries/societies which have a similar per capita GDP or a similar Human Development Index (HDI)?
   III.            In what ways and to what extent do the distinct components of social cohesion specifically affect the distinct dimensions of human capabilities such as material well-being, mental development, security, political freedom, health and others?
The hypothesis derives from these questions and the theoretical discussion presented above and states that:
An increase in the level of social cohesion (the extent and nature of social interactions, trust and sense of belonging among individuals and groups, the levels of inequalities among individuals and groups, and levels of exclusion) in a society will ultimately lead to the expansion of human capabilities and therefore to an increase in the aggregate level of wellbeing (defined as “human development”) in that society. Social cohesion acts as an “opportunity structure” and has a significant potential in giving individuals the agency needed to improve their economic conditions and civic liberties defined here as “freedoms” or “capabilities”. 

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